2011 Predictions & Game Story
Week 4 - WMU at Illinois
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Sept. 24 at Illinois 23 … Western Michigan 20
CFN Analysis: Don't just assume that Illinois isn't all that great because it struggled to get by Western Michigan. This is a strong Bronco team that's good enough to win the MAC, and no matter how it happened, the Illini is 4-0 going into Big Ten play against Northwestern. The defense is playing at a high level with the best pass rush in the conference, while Donovonn Young and Troy Pollard – who combined for 233 rushing yards - controlled the ball and the clock for more than 35 minutes to give the secondary a break. The fear, though, is that the pass defense got picked apart by the Broncos, and Dan Persa is healthy and ready to go for the Wildcats. Illinois has to get pressure into the backfield, and the D line might have to start doing even more.
The Broncos are 2-2 with the two defeats coming against Big Ten schools, but the offense worked against both Michigan and Illinois. Jordan White was unstoppable against the Illini, catching 14 passes for 132 yards and a score. He didn't come up with any huge plays, but he functioned as the equivalent of a ground game with several short to midrange catches. Alex Carder was terrific, throwing for 306 yards and two scores, but he couldn't keep the chains moving and the defense couldn't stop the Illini ground game. Next week against UConn, WMU should finally have its win over a BCS school before diving back into MAC play against Bowling Green.
(AP) CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- With a halftime lead on Illinois, Western Michigan saw a chance to relive a little recent history.
The Broncos had held the ball for almost 17 minutes, keeping the Illini defense on the field and building not just the 13-10 lead but a bit of confidence. After all, Western Michigan had knocked off the Illini the last time the teams played, in 2008, and for 30 minutes on Saturday moved the ball on the No. 24 Illini like another upset was in the works.
That was before Illinois (4-0) turned the ball over to its running backs, dominating second-half possession and depriving quarterback Alex Carder and receiver Jordan White of the ball in a 23-20 win.
"It's gut wrenching," Carder said. "Everybody is just sitting in disbelief that it happened the way it did."
Carder finished 30 of 48 with 306 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, while White had his 14th career 100-yard game, catching 14 balls for 132 yards a TD.
But most of that production came in a first half that ended with the Broncos (2-2, 1-0 MAC) up by only 3 points and WMU never found a way to move the ball on the ground. They finished with just 35 yards on 21 carries.
Carder had 100 yards passing over the final 30 minutes and White was held to four catches and a relatively modest 43 yards.
"Did they out-physical us at the end? Probably," Bronco coach Bill Cubit said. "But during the game I thought our kids did a pretty good job."
In all, Illinois had 296 rushing yards on 52 carries, 184 of those yards in the second half with tailbacks Brandon Pollard and Donovonn Young sharing most of the load.
"You've heard me say this a thousand times," said coach Ron Zook, whose Illini are 4-0 for the first time since 1951. "You can't have enough running backs."
Pollard finished with 133 yards on 14 carries while Young, a freshman, had 100 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries.
"I think I was at the right place at the right time," Pollard said. "It feels pretty good to help out the team as much as you can, especially when your number's called and you can do big things."
Early on, Carder, White and Illinois' offensive struggles gave the Broncos a great chance for a repeat of the 2008 upset that would have cost Illinois their week-old ranking. The Illini only moved into the Top 25 with last Saturday's win over Arizona State.
With the Illini up 10-3, Western Michigan struck with a 76-yard, clock-eating drive that ended with a 23-yard field goal from John Potter that cut the deficit to 10-6.
The Illini ran three plays that went nowhere before backup punter Ryan Lankford, one of Illinois' starting receivers, blooped a 21-yard, rugby-style punt that set up the Broncos at the Illini 39.
Three plays later, Carder hit receiver Chleb Ravenell, who sidestepped charging safety Supo Sanni and sprinted to the end zone for a 35-yard touchdown and a 13-10 lead.
"In the first half we were clicking," said Carder, who faced heavy pressure and was sacked twice. "They have a solid D-line and I'll tip my hat off to that, but other than that there was nothing we hadn't faced before."
Potter missed a pair of first half field goal tries that could have meant the difference.
"We stayed toe-to-toe with them the whole time," Cubit said, noting the points the Broncos left on the field.
Things only got worse for the Illini after Ravenell's touchdown. Illinois moved down the field for a potential score, but offensive lineman High Thornton was flagged for unnecessary roughness and Scheelhaase was sacked for a loss of nine yards. His heave into the end zone was picked off, but another lineman Jeff Allen, was ejected after the teams jostled on the way to the locker rooms.
The final half was much different. With a first and 10 at the Western Michigan 14, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase ran left on an option with Young trailing him, taking the pitch just as Scheelhaase absorbed a wicked hit.
Young scooted hard around the corner, shooting a gap between three Broncos defenders and into the end zone. Illinois was back in the lead at 17-13 with 10:27 left in the quarter.
After a Derek Dimke field goal put the Illini up 20-13, Western Michigan tied the game late in the quarter on a seven-yard pass from Carder to White. Early in the fourth quarter, though, Pollard gave the Illini the edge they would use to win.
On a first and 10 at the Illinois 30, the back squirted out of the middle of the Illini offense and down the right sideline for his 49 yard run, forced out by cornerback Lewis Toller.
A few plays later, with 8:14 left in the game, Dimke hit the 21-yard field goal that put Illinois up 23-20.
Western Michigan travels to Connecticut next Saturday while Illinois opens Big Ten at home again Northwestern, the fifth straight home game for the Illini.
Western Michigan (2-1) at Illinois (3-0) Sept. 24, 3:30, BTN
Here's The Deal … This sets up perfectly for Illinois to be Illinois at its most Illinois.
In 2008, the Illini appeared to turn its season around with a big win over Iowa, and then it came up with a dud of a performance in a loss to Western Michigan and went on to lose the final two games to miss out on a bowl.
In 2010, just when Illinois was hot, despite a loss to Michigan in the epic 67-65 shootout, it gagged against Minnesota when it let its guard down.
This year, Illinois is almost on the verge of making a national splash after beating Arizona State in a great win that no one appeared to have noticed, after getting by Arkansas State and South Dakota State without a problem. With Northwestern at home and Indiana to follow, a win over WMU could and should mean a 6-0 start before hosting a wounded Ohio State. But beating WMU isn't as easy as it might sound.
The Broncos are playing extremely well, and while they lost to Michigan 34-10, they were moving the ball without a problem and ended up getting blown out on two great plays from the Wolverine defense. The offense blew up on Nicholls State and started out the MAC season by ripping through Central Michigan 44-14, and now it's time to make a statement that this is going to be a special season. The conference schedule is tough, but the team is good enough to win every game left on the schedule, including this one.
Why Western Michigan Might Win: The WMU pass defense has been excellent so far. It gave Denard Robinson problems in the loss to Michigan – that according to the NCAA, didn't really happen stats-wise – and it was all over the field last week keeping the Central Michigan passing attack under wraps. CMU's Ryan Radcliff threw for 215 yards, but all the big plays came in the second half and there was never any threat of giving WMU problems.
The Bronco offense is humming at a high level and has been great at getting off to hot starts. It moved the ball up and down the field on Michigan in the first half, put up 28 points on Nicholls State in the first half, and put CMU away immediately with a 21-0 first quarter lead. Quarterback Alex Carder is playing extremely well and he's coming out of the gate hot. Also helping the cause is a return game led by Jordan White, who leads the nation averaging 33 yards per punt return. and Dervon Wallace on kickoff returns, who's averaging 34.6 yards per kickoff return. The Illinois return games have been a problem, averaging just three yards per punt return and under 20 yards on kickoff returns.
Why Illinois Might Win: The run defense has been fantastic. The defensive front has been outstanding at getting to the quarterback and hasn't given up a thing on the ground, beating up Arizona State's Brock Osweiler last week for six sacks while allowing just 106 rushing yards. Over the first two games, the Illini gave up just 85 rushing yards and it's going to do just fine against one of WMU's best strengths so far, the offensive line.
Hanging on to the ball has been a problem for WMU, giving it up twice for scores in the loss to Michigan and giving it was four times against Nicholls State and twice against CMU. While the Broncos have lost three fumbles over the last two games, it put the ball on the ground six times. The Illinois defense has forced eight takeaways so far and is almost certain to come up with a few big takeaways.
What To Watch Out For: After spending last year as a spot starter, Illinois junior Whitney Mercilus is blossoming in a bigger role. At 6-4 and 265 pounds he has excellent size and a good first step as a pass rusher, and he's showing it off with three sacks, with two against ASU, two forced fumbles, and nine tackles. A great recruit a few years ago, he's growing into one of the Big Ten's best new pass rushers.
Western Michigan's Jordan White has been unstoppable. Unfortunately, the NCAA is dismissing the stats from the Michigan game, and that takes away White's 12 catches for 119 yards. The sixth-year senior wasn't needed against Nicholls State, catching four passes for 67 yards, and he made 13 grabs for 177 yards and two touchdowns against Central Michigan along with a 64-yard punt return. Counting the Michigan game, he has hit the 100-yard mark in seven of his last nine games.
What Will Happen: Western Michigan will come up with a major test and Illinois will need to come up with a gut-check moment or three. The Broncos will dominate the stats, but they'll give the ball up three times and Illinois will take advantage to escape with an ugly win. Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has a banged up shoulder, but he'll run effectively.
CFN Prediction: Illinois 27 .. Western Michigan 24
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Illinois -12 O/U: 53
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